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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceHBP
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 768 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoilers: for the series

I haven’t re-read this book as many times as the others. Next to Chamber of Secrets, it’s my least-favourite book of the series. Which is not to say it doesn’t have its moments — it does, some spectacular ones, and I actually like it a lot better when read in conjunction with Deathly Hallows. As a prelude to Book 7, it does a decent job. As a book on its own, though, I have trouble enjoying it — not least because I feel it’s a step back from Order of the Phoenix in a lot of ways. I’m not sure if this was maybe intentional — a sort of “calm before the storm” — but it feels odd. To have all the intensity of OotP, the ramp-up, the revelations… and then, in HBP, we lose so much momentum.

For example, it will never not bother me that the DA stops having meetings. What sense does that make? Just because Umbridge is gone? There is now actually a war on, and yet Harry stops dispensing his wisdom to the people who looked to him for support and guidance. I think the DA was also incredibly useful as a method of inter-House bonding, for forming networks and relationships. My heart breaks for Luna, when she obliquely calls Harry out on his dropped interest: “It was like having friends,” indeed.

And then there’s the amount of time this book spends on the fluctuations of teenage hormones. With a war on, with people disappearing and dying, with the near-deaths at Hogwarts itself… and yet our main characters spend far more of their energy on snogging, or arguing about snogging. Now, I realise this is entirely realistic. I remember being sixteen, and so I know that sixteen-year-olds do not always have the most appropriate priorities. But, to me, it doesn’t make for entertaining literature.

It is nice that we get to see more of Hogwarts-as-Hogwarts in this book. In a lot of ways, this is the least disrupted year since Harry’s first — what with the Chamber of Secrets, patrolling Dementors, the Triwizard Tournament, and then Umbridge’s reign. I always wanted to see more of just what goes on in the classrooms (and am hoping for some more of that on Pottermore), and Half-Blood Prince delivers. (Except, oddly, in Defence Against the Dark Arts, of which we see comparatively little, considering that Snape’s in charge of it now). We also get to see more Quidditch, which makes me happy. I know JK got tired of writing it, but Quidditch is about the one sport I would actually follow, so I enjoyed it.

I also remember this book throwing me for a loop right from the start, the first time I read it. In the previous five books, anytime we got information that wasn’t from Harry’s point of view, it was still because he was “seeing” it somehow — through a dream, or a vision, or the Pensieve. Half-Blood Prince opens with not one, but two chapters detailing events that Harry knows nothing about. And I’ve never been quite sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, it’s great information to have. (Spinner’s End, incidentally, is one of my favourite chapters in the entire series, largely because a friend and I had that exact conversation between Bellatrix and Snape while RPing, long before this book was ever released. It was nice to feel so thoroughly validated in our views on the characters). But on the other hand, it’s a jarring derivation in style, this far through the series. It changes the narrative rules.

One development I do think is interesting is that Harry spends this entire book being 100% correct about Draco Malfoy, and yet… no one listens to him. Everyone, including his friends, dismisses it as a product of their long rivalry. (There’s also an interesting parallel there, with Bellatrix and Snape at the beginning of the book — Bella is, of course, 100% correct about Snape, and she damn well knows it, even if she doesn’t know why and can’t prove it). It’s frustrating to read, and I can understand Harry’s lack of patience with the whole mess — Dumbledore spends half his time treating Harry like a grown man who not only deserves but needs to know crucial information, and the other half still telling him to blindly trust and not to question.

So, overall, this is not among my favourites of the HP series — but, as I said with Chamber of Secrets, even one that’s weak in comparison to the others is still a sight better than a lot of books out there. It improved on re-read, and it improves read in conjunction with Deathly Hallows.

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Until the Very End: The Last Release

I know I’m way behind on reviews — partially because, due to the Great Fandom Re-Read Project, I’ve spent so much time the last two weeks reading that I haven’t had time to write anything up — but I just wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts about what is, for now, at least, the last Harry Potter release. This is not a review of the movie, though I’m sure I’ll get one of those up eventually as well. I originally posted this yesterday afternoon, on my private journal, but decided I wanted to share it more broadly.


This is not the end of my childhood.

My childhood was already almost over when I got into Harry Potter. I was sixteen, closing in on seventeen. I had to make a run to the drugstore to pick a prescription, and I picked up the 1st book, completely on a whim, just from the little newsstand there. I devoured it in a day, and then had to get CoS immediately — which I then had to balance with studying for my physics final. I remember distinctly sitting on my back porch, alternating a chapter of one with a chapter of the other. By the time I finished PoA, school was over and I was on my way to Italy. But, Goblet of Fire was still only out in hardcover — and my packing restrictions for going to Italy meant I couldn’t carry a hardcover book with me. So, I spent three weeks in torment, not knowing what happened next, having to cover my ears when the other girls started talking about it. This was sort of my first introduction to the concept of spoilers.

I wasn’t an adult yet, but I wasn’t a child, either. I’d known love and I’d known betrayal and I’d known heartbreak. I still had a long way to go on the path to maturity, but I didn’t enter these books in a state of innocence. I sometimes wonder if that’s why the characters who fascinated me — Sirius Black, Bellatrix and Narcissa and the Lestrange brothers, Remus Lupin, Minerva McGonagall — aren’t as much the younger characters, not the ones we watched grow up (though I do have a great deal of affection for many of them as well).

As much as I loved the series from the moment I picked it up, I didn’t really get into the fandom, though, until a little later — about the time, I think, that Order of the Phoenix came out. Slightly before, probably — I started hunting the web for theories and clues and ponderings, and I stumbled into fanart and fanfic as I was doing so. And from then on… oh, I was immersed. The spot that Star Wars and musical theatre had once occupied in my heart and mind, Harry Potter now claimed.

I can’t even express how much this series and this fandom have meant to me. Even though I’m not really in the fandom anymore, or at least not the way I was — it was so big a part of me for so long. There are so many memories, glittering and laughing and, well, magical. Online and off, in text and in real life, there’s just so much. Whole afternoons and nights spent discussing theories, both about the past and the future, with my friends. Helping to found WizMug, a HP fan club at William and Mary, becoming their projects chair, organizing Death Day parties and Yule balls, playing Quidditch for Slytherin and discovering that I make a damn good Chaser.

And then online, where I met so many people who have become such good friends to me,  some of whom are now in other fandoms with me. I love that HP brought us together, and that we’ve stayed close. I remember discovering the Lexicon and all its cross-referenced wonders. I remember discovering Mugglenet and its forums and theories. I remember hovering on JK’s site whenever she was going to make an announcement. I remember being delighted over wonderful fanart.

I remember, and still re-read, the fanfics I wrote, oh my goodness, crafting an entire life for Bella Black, making her so full and real, drawing up proper family trees with sensible math, sketching out the floor plan of Ebony Manor, spending ages on timelines and details and all the little moments that made up her life and made her what she was — and becoming so well-known for it, at least for a time, at least in a certain part of the fandom. I was, for a while, the queen of the House of Black, HBIC, an acknowledged force to be reckoned with. My stories became head!canon for a lot of my readers, which is still so flattering. I remember the fic challenges, and the communities, and the exchanges. I remember running a prompt community for a year, and running a Death Eater reclist. I remember how hard I pushed myself, and how good it felt to get the story right, and how even better it felt when other people took delight in it, too. My writing grew so much from writing her — and it also led to me exploring a rather darker side of my own nature. Bella helped me fight through the deepest, grimmest depression of my life. It took exploring that darkness, through her, to know how to combat it in my own life.

Then, the RPGs – Sanctuary, which was my first one, an OC-based, PoA-set game, filled with so many Mary-Sues, but which was still fun, and that’s where Alexandra Bradford started — dear little clumsy, bubbly, sweet-natured Alex (the antithesis, really, to Bella). Then Oblitesco, Race, D&S briefly, Magic-on-the-Web that never was. Getting so frustrated with the lack of plot in one comm that we, with our tertiary side characters, created a completely bonkers sideline plot that we somehow sucked Harry Potter himself into — and then getting fed up and just starting our own game, which I still think had a better plot than HBP did. Staying up all night RPing with my friends, spending far too many hours with Heather detailing the precise breakdown of votes in a wizarding election, caring so much about what happened with Bella or poor little Alex. And then Lumos, the great sorting comm, where I fought so hard for Slytherin’s dominance game after game — and where I met a great many people that I still cooperate and compete with over in a different sorting community, based on A Song of Ice and Fire.

I remember the book release parties — coming within several beans of winning the guessing contest, faux-groveling at the feet of a kid who came as Quirrel, complete with Voldy-head, having to wash black dye out of my hair, giving my name as “Black” at a restaurant just because it made me giggle to do so. For HBP, when we all went as Death Eaters and spent the night asking people to join our cause — and getting one seven-year-old to yell “Pureblood pride!” which still makes me giggle inappropriately. Crawling underneath the table at the Short Pump B&N to get away from the crowds, and sitting on the floor between two racks of greeting cards because there just wasn’t anywhere else to go. Just being so happy to be sharing the love with so many people, with complete strangers who were also so happy. There was always a whole lot of love in those rooms. I remember not getting OotP at the store, because I’d already pre-ordered it on Amazon — I remember the way the FedEx guy just grinned at me when I bounded out the door to meet him, because he knew what I wanted, because Amazon made those special boxes just for HP. I remember falling out of my chair during the second chapter of HBP, because Dez and I had had that exact conversation while RPing. Then, with DH, that amazing, bonkers, crazy, beautiful day with Katie, sharing that whole book with her, reading along together, her reading it out loud to me in the car as we drove, trying not to have an accident because I was sobbing so hard.

I remember the excitement of getting my parents to read them. Mom caught on early, but it took forever to persuade Dad. They’re both pretty adorable about it now, though. I remember getting text messages from both of them when JK announced that Dumbledore was gay.

I remember the movie releases — taking over an entire theatre with WizMug for Goblet of Fire, shuttling people back and forth from the University Center, sitting grouped with our Houses, a riot of colours and banners, all cheering and shouting. I remember taking a veritable hoard of costumed folk to New Town for OotP, taking pictures in the hallway of the Jamestown dorms. I remember not making the midnight showing of HBP, but going to Short Pump the next day — getting called a freak by some sideways-hat-wearing moron in a truck, and informing him that I have more and better sex than he does. DH1 wasn’t as much of an event, due to time constraints and poor planning, but it was still an exciting evening I got to share with friends. And now… now I’ll have Deathly Hallows 2 to remember, too.

And then, just a couple of months ago… going to Hogsmeade, getting to immerse so fully in that wonderful dream. Just being dazzled and delighted, all over again, and realising that — this series is going to stand the test of time. Haters to the left. It is certainly not without its flaws, but it is still something really special, and it always will be.

I may not have come to HP as a child, but part of what the series reminds me is that — you don’t have to be a child to feel that wonder, that splendour, that sense of magnificence. You don’t have to be a child to get wrapped up in a story. You don’t have to be a child to learn lessons from a story, either. And you certainly don’t have to be a child to love something so much that you overflow with it, that you have to share it with all of your friends. I’m so glad HP has given me such an opportunity to stay playful and creative, an excuse to dress up and not care what anyone thinks about me, to laugh and debate and get excited with my dearest friends. I’m a woman grown, and I wouldn’t trade back a minute of what HP’s given me over the past nine years — nor do I intend to give it up now.

Everyone’s sad that it’s over. Everyone’s worried this really is the end, that what’s left of the fandom will die out after this.

I’m hoping there are, phoenix-like, the seeds of a new beginning here. I have high hopes for Pottermore. I’m hoping it will spark enough new things that I’ll be able to get back in to the fandom properly — and that my friends might come along, too. There’s still a part of me that wants to get that Elizabethan-era game running someday. Or a Vittoria-AU game. Or rejoin a sorting comm. It won’t ever be just as it was, it won’t ever be that same golden moment again — but there could be something else, just as special, in its own way.

I wept my eyes out last night, make no mistake. My heart was breaking for so many reasons. But I do not accept this as The End.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixOotP
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 766 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Re-read, many times
Rating: 5 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the whole series

It is exactly no secret that this is my favourite of the Harry Potter books.

I love a good rebellion. I love the sensation of fighting against incredible odds, of using subversion, of righteous indignation bubbling over into furious action. And so my favourite part of this book is towards the end, when the students launch a full-scale insurrection against Dolores Umbridge. (Umbridge, by the way, is one of the most successful villains of all time. She’s hateable in a way that’s so much more real than Voldemort, at least prior to Deathly Hallows — I remember just wanting to reach into the book and throttle her fat little neck). The scene where Fred and George take their leave of Hogwarts is one of my favourite moments in the entire series, and I laugh my way through the entire section where J K describes how the students (and other professors) are undermining Umbridge’s reign. From Lee Jordan levitating Nifflers into the office, to the vast outbreaks of illness thanks to the Skiving Snackboxes, to the firework resolutely spelling “POO”, to McGonagall telling Peeves that the chandelier unscrews the other way, I just love every little bit of it. And J K builds to this point magnificently — so much of the book up till that point is so frustrating. As a reader, you feel Harry’s sense of being boxed in, headed off at every turn, every opportunity for relief nipped in the bud — and so the emotional release, the sense of triumph, is augmented, greater for its contrast to the stifling atmosphere that came before.

But I also love the overall idea of the Order, and it’s mirror in the DA. Even as Sirius reminds us that the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters, we do see the lines of battle emerge. And I love the glimpses we get into the First War. Anyone who’s read the fanfiction I wrote during the height of my involvement in HP fandom knows that my fascination lies in those years — I wish we knew more about them, and I love to explore them myself. So I love the information we get about it in OotP, from the family entanglements, all the information on the House of Black, to the composition of the Order the first time around, as we see them in that picture of Mad-Eye’s. It also makes me wonder where the Ministry stood during the First War — How involved were they? Did the Order have to be as much of a secret? After all, we know that Mad-Eye and the Longbottoms were Aurors and in the Order, which wouldn’t necessarily mean as much, considering Kingsley and Tonks playing double-duty the second time around, except that we’re also explicitly told that the Aurors were responsible for bringing in many of the dark wizards associated with Voldemort. So I wonder if the Order was quite as taboo as it had to be, thanks to Fudge’s thickness, the second time around.

And then I love what J K does with the DA, not least because it brings out the potential in so many characters. Neville Longbottom starts to show the flicker of badassery that we see from him in Deathly Hallows. Some of the students who might otherwise be dismissed as frivolous, like Lavender, Parvati, etc, show real aptitude and concentration, devoting their energy to these practices. It’s a great display of inter-House unity, excepting the total absence of any Slytherins — but at least it brings in the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, showing that Gryffindor House does not have a monopoly on fighting the good fight (or on talent, for that matter). The greatest transformation, though, is that of Harry into a leader and a teacher. He starts to find out just what he can do, how he can inspire, encourage, and correct. I love when he gets a set of practical defensive magic books for Christmas from Sirius and Lupin and, rather than seeing them as more homework, gets excited to look through them and find ideas for new lessons. I know that J K tells us that Harry goes on to become an Auror and all of that, but I sort of hope, once he’s starting to be a bit long in the tooth for that profession (not to mention that I don’t know what Aurors do when there isn’t a wizarding war on), that he comes back to Hogwarts to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts. (I also hope that he went and played Quidditch professionally for a while before becoming an Auror, because, c’mon, the guy has earned a break — but that’s a different theory entirely).

So, I love this book.

But this is also the book that broke my heart. The first time I read it, I sobbed for ages over Sirius’s death. Ran wailing to my mother in the next room, actually, and then sniffled my way through the remainder of the book. Because it’s just so unfair. After all he went through, and after a year of frustration, of all his energy and vitality chained up, given no outlet… and then he just dies. For so long I was one of those who refused to believe it. I knew, after all, that every hero’s journey includes a visit to the Underworld, and I was certain we’d be seeing Sirius again. As it turned out, I was right about that, though not quite in the way I’d hoped. I don’t think it was until after I finished Half-Blood Prince that I accepted that nothing was going to bring him back.

I blame Harry, Dumbledore, and Snape in equal parts for Sirius’s death. I blame Sirius for it a bit, too, because of how he treated Kreacher, which was definitely wrong — but given the tragedy of his life, the thirteen years of Azkaban leaving him emotionally arrested in so many ways, I don’t know that he psychologically could have treated Kreacher any other way. (I admit a bias, of course, with how positive I am on Sirius). The other three, though — okay, maybe I’m being a bit unfair to Harry, who is only fifteen himself (and I generally cut him a lot more slack in this book than many readers have — I think CAPSLOCK!HARRY is completely understandable to anyone who remembers being fifteen) — but his refusal to even look at the communicating mirror bewilders me. That would have saved so much trouble right there. Dumbledore should’ve known better in how he treated both Harry and Sirius. I still can’t bring myself to believe there was nothing Sirius could have done to help the Order, that there was no way to get him out of that house (or that there was no one who couldn’t have moved in with him, so at least he wasn’t brooding and alone there). Knowing both of those personalities, Dumbledore should have known that ignorance and inaction were not the way to achieve the desired ends. And Snape has no excuse for his complete failure to teach Harry Occlumency. I know Harry was being recalcitrant, but Snape, you’re a professor, this is not new to you, and he really doesn’t do a damn thing to help Harry learn. Telling the kid to empty his mind clearly was not an effective strategy and man do I empathize with that — it’s the reason I’m crap at any kind of meditation and can’t do yoga. It doesn’t come along that easily for some people, especially those whose passions run high and hot. Snape didn’t teach. He just expected Harry to figure it out himself, which was totally unhelpful. It also might’ve helped if either Dumbledore or Snape had warned Harry that Voldemort might’ve been trying to plant false images; then Harry wouldn’t have assumed that his vision of Sirius was as true as his vision of Arthur had been. He could’ve been on his guard, even if he was seeing things.

And all of that is what breaks my heart about Sirius’s death more than anything — it was so needless, so wasteful, so avoidable. Which is a harsh truth about life, really, but of anyone that J K could’ve killed off, especially so early, she picked exactly the one person I would have begged her to save. I expect she knew what an impact it would have on her readers — that, like Harry, we’d come to see Sirius as a font of hope, as someone who would treat Harry more like an adult, give him the information others held back, protect him like a father, and maybe, someday, give Harry the home and family he’s yearned for his whole life. She builds up Sirius’s potential so much, reminds us how handsome and vital he was in his youth just to underscore the damage the years have done to him, shows us how he’s been fettered, how much he strives against being chained in, how much his passionate nature needs freedom, and she makes us hope that there will be a better life out there for him in the future — and then she cuts it off. It’s brutal.

There’s also some brilliant, though really sad, foreshadowing in this book. It anticipates Deathly Hallows in a lot of subtle ways that I might not have picked up on so strongly if I hadn’t been listening to the DH audiobook. Take, for instance, Mad-Eye Moody’s paranoia over getting Harry out of Privet Drive, which most of the other members of the Advance Guard sort of roll their eyes at and treat as a joke. Well, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the time we get to the Seven Harrys in DH, no one question’s Mad-Eye’s plans. It’s also interesting to mirror Fred and George’s decision to leave Hogwarts with Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s imperative to skip their seventh year. (It’s sort of an interesting message for  J K to send — that education is important, but can only take you so far, and that the institutionalized program of education isn’t necessarily for everyone). Or take the flip-flops in the Ministry (a commentary on the general instability of politics if ever there was one). The MoM goes from adoring Harry in PoA to despising and ridiculing him in OotP, then to protecting him in DH, down to Rufus Scrimgeour’s ultimate sacrifice, all the way to working as a branch of Voldemort’s operation, declaring war on Muggleborns and hunting Harry down as Undesirable #1. There’s so much that goes into the transition of the war from underground to explicit. The characters also have to deal with the absence of Dumbledore in both books, though in very different ways: in OotP,it’s first his emotional absence from Harry’s life, his detachment and lack of engagement; in DH, it’s his death, the true, permanent loss. I wonder if all of these parallels between the two books were intentional, if J K thought them out and structured them into the greater shape of the series, or if they just sort of blossomed along organically with the story.

I think this may be the longest review I’ve yet written on this blog, which speaks to how much this book means to me and how much of my brainpower and creative energy I’ve devoted to it over the years. I suspect it’s no coincidence that OotP is the book where I got really deeply not just into the series, but into the fandom — and so this book, and so many of the details revealed in it, have a powerful emotional attachment for me. There are so many memories pressed within the pages, and each time I re-read, I get to revisit the discussions and arguments I had with friends, the RP threads exploring ideas, the effort and planning that went into my fanfics, and the glorious sense of accomplishment when I wrote something that I thought really nailed it — all the wonder of building a little place for myself inside this magnificent universe.

Thanks for that, J K. It’s been priceless.

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireGoblet of Fire
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 2000
Length: 734 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read, many times
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: In effect for the whole series

It’s strange, because everyone remembers this as the book where Voldemort returns, where Cedric dies, where the horror really begins. And yet, reading it this go-round, what struck me most is how funny this book is. I think it’s the funniest of the whole series, up until the end. There are just so many brilliant jokes in it — and, for the first time, the humour’s starting to become a bit more adult in some places. I mean, this is where we first hear about…

“An excellent point,” said Professor Dumbledore. “My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practicing inappropriate charms on a goat. It was all over the papers, but did Aberforth hide? No, he did not! He held his head high and went about his business as usual! Of course, I’m not entirely sure he can read, so that may not have been bravery.”

Ahh, Aberforth. (In light of what we see of him later, though, Albus’s disdain seems a bit unfair — but that’s a discussion for Book 7). So much of the humour in Goblet of Fire is also so dry and subtle — she’s not playing for the laughs here, she’s just letting the wit take over. As in:

Just then, Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary.

Or the bit about Professor Flitwick “whizzing resignedly past” the group while they’re practicing Banishing Charms. And then even at the tail end of the book, even after the worst has happened, JK lightens the load a bit, when everyone hexes Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle on the train. There’s comic relief throughout this book, and I wonder if that’s part of the books maturing — when things start to get heavier, you need more of the lightness to balance it all out.

The story also starts to feel so big here — in part because we start getting the international angle. Actually, one of my major complaints about the series is that JK never did as much with that as I had been hoping she would. I was so hoping that Fleur and Krum were going to end up being really significant for bringing in foreign allies as support against Voldemort… but, nada, most we got was Fleur marrying Bill (which, admittedly, I do enjoy — just not quite as politically important as it might be) and Krum getting a personality transplant. I also love that it took so much longer just to get to Hogwarts in this book, because you start seeing so much more of the rest of the Wizarding World. The World Cup is magnificent for that — this glimpse into what wizarding culture is like outside of Britain. Or, really, just what adult wizards are like when they get together. And even if I don’t understand why adult wizards have so much trouble dressing themselves, it did give us another hilarious moment, with Archie and his love for a healthy breeze. This is also where the Ministry gets introduced properly — I know we first meet Fudge in Book 2, we get a little more in Book 3, but this is the first time we find out more about how it really works, and we start meeting so many more Ministry officials. It sets things up nicely for actually seeing the Ministry in Order of the Phoenix.

At the same time, though, this definitely is the real beginning of the darkness. You get just a taste of it in Prisoner of Azkaban, but here, it becomes real. Voldemort is back. The title of the last chapter, “The Beginning”, is perfectly fitting. This is the beginning of the Second War, right here, even though it doesn’t become open war until much later.

I remember the chills I got the first time I read the end of this book, too — the first time reading:

“Sirius, I need you to set off at once. You are to alert Remus Lupin, Arabella Figg, Mundungus Fletcher — the old crowd. Lie low at Lupin’s for a while. I will contact you there.”

That excited me so goddamn much. Because it may be dark and terrible and scary, but there’s that glimmer of hope — there are still people who will fight. And they can be brought back together. It’s the sense of camaraderie, of banding together, of being the happy few standing against all odds — there’s something, forgive the term, magical about that. I also love the revelation towards the end of the book that Sirius and Dumbledore have been in contact all year. I would love to read that correspondence. (Or I might just, y’know, fic it for my own benefit).

This book, much as I enjoy it, isn’t without plotholes. It’s sort of a stretch to believe that Barty Jr couldn’t have found some way to get Harry to Voldemort way earlier on — the whole “it has to be at the third task” plot doesn’t really hold up to a lot of scrutiny. I would say it’s hard to imagine that the Triwizard participants would be placed in so much real danger, dragons and sphinxes and acromantuale and the like, but… given what we see of wizarding education, no, that part actually makes complete sense. The spacing of the tasks across the year doesn’t make much sense, though. Barty Jr’s escape from prison stretches credulity.

Overall, Goblet of Fire is a really solid bridge book in the series. It really does straddle the line between the lighter half and the darker half of the saga. It’s probably my fourth favourite out of the seven, but that’s only because the three I rank above it are just so out-of-the-park amazing in my opinion. This book is, as its 4.5 stars indicate, really amazing. And it’s a magnificent launching pad. I’m having to force myself to alternate projects before I start on Order of the Phoenix — which is, full disclosure, my very favourite of the HP books, so I’m quite excited to return to it.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanPrisoner of Azkaban
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 1999
Length: 435 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This, for my money, is where things started to get really.damn.good.

It may just be my overwhelming love for the Marauders, and for the Marauders-era in general — and this is where all of that begins. We find out so much more about James, Sirius, and Remus in this book, about them being Animagi, about the lives they led while they were at school. All the revelations at the end just delight me. And this is, hands down, where I started falling in love with Sirius. I love a scruffy bad boy, for one thing, but there’s also just something about how his wicked, sarcastic sense of humour peeks through even when he’s half-mad with rage. Plus, I love the moment when he screams at Peter, when his undying loyalty to his friends becomes so apparent.

I have so many thoughts on Sirius, really — along with Bella and Rodolphus, he was a primary feature of my fanfic writing days. His story is among the most tragic in the series — young and strong and passionate, with everything stolen from him when he was just 22. His whole development is arrested before he really has the chance to become an adult, he spends his formative years fighting a war — against his own family, mind — and he spends the next 12 years trying not to go crazy in the most inhumane prison ever invented. All the flaws we see in him later on… Well, I sort of feel like he can’t help it. He never had a chance.

The moment in this book that absolutely breaks my heart is when Sirius asks Harry to move in with him. It’s just aching. They both want that so badly — and they both need it. Sirius could use someone to take care of, to make him responsible rather than reckless, and Harry could use a father figure, someone to confide in and to trust. Just thinking about how much better things could’ve gone for them both is so sad.

There’s so much in this book that’s so good: the Quidditch matches, the Marauders’ Map, seeing Hogsmeade for the first time, finally seeing Defence Against the Dark Arts taught capably, the introduction to Divination both false and true… Actually, in general, I think we see more of the students actually in class in this book than we do in the previous two. And I really love that, because it gives me so much more to play with in terms of figuring out how the magic of this world really works. I love the cleverness behind all of it. I love knowing how the metaphysics work.

This book also does time travel astonishingly well. This book is what I always use as an example when I’m trying to explain the Novikov self-consistency principle to someone — the idea that if you go back in time, whatever you’ve done has already happened, so you’re not really changing history so much as fulfilling it. It’s all to do with closed loops, and Prisoner of Azkaban is a sterling example. It’s flawless, really, all the intricacies of what they have to do when. I also enjoy that we see the strain of time-traveling on Hermione. It does make me wonder, though — other folk who’ve gotten 12 O.W.L.s, who’ve taken the maximum number of classes — how did they do it? Surely Hogwarts doesn’t hand out Timeturners all that often.

I think what’s really great is that this is where the books start getting so much more complex. The plot is less directly linear, even before the time traveling. There are layers, nuances, subtleties. I also think it’s no coincidence that this is where we get introduced to boggarts and Dementors. Fears become more palpable in this book, more real. It isn’t a fairy tale any more. There’s psychological truth to the characters now, and less caricature, less stereotyping. And the threats are becoming a lot more real — which is a little strange, considering Voldemort himself doesn’t appear in this novel. But the victims of the past are starting to have faces, and there’s no longer the sensation that the good guys are automatically going to triumph. After all, they don’t, entirely, here. What victory they have is secret, uncelebrated. Peter Pettigrew gets away unpunished. Sirius is still a wanted man. Danger is still out there, looming, lurking, waiting to come to fruition.

Overall, this is among my favourite of the Harry Potter books. It’s probably tied with Deathly Hallows, right behind Order of the Phoenix. The first two books are delightful, but this? This is where the story gets legitimately magical.


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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsChamber of Secrets
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication:  1999
Length: 341 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Many-times re-read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning For all 7 books, considering that I talk about how this one relates to the story as a whole.

In some ways, it’s weird that this is my least favourite of the Harry Potter books, because it introduces so many concepts that I find crucial to the overall series. (It also introduces so many things that come back in Books 6 and 7, but that’s entirely another matter).

1) Purebloodism. The whole ethos behind the Dark Lord’s rise to power first gets introduced here (previously it was just slated as a lust for power, with the vague notion that “some families are better than others”). We learn about Mudbloods and Squibs, about pureblood prejudice, about various feelings on interbreeding with Muggles.

2) House-elves. I don’t know how others feel about them, but Dobby was annoying and dangerous to me from the very beginning, and I don’t quite get the warm fuzzies that others have for him. I have no patience with characters who, while well-intentioned, are pretty much just screw-ups who get in the way and who never learn from error (same reason I dislike Hagrid so strongly), so Dobby grates on my nerves real fast. Regardless — what with Kreacher and Winky and all, house-elves become quite important characters in later books, and we first learn about them, and their special brand of magic, here.

3) School rivalries still affecting adult relationships. We get a little bit of this in Book 1 with Snape hating Harry because of James, and we’ll see far more of it in Book 3, but we start seeing more of it here. The scuffle between Arthur and Lucius in Flourish & Blotts is a particularly entertaining example.

4) Founders. Again, mentioned in Book 1, but we get a much deeper look here, particularly at the personalities, the friendships, and the betrayals. I believe this is the first time we get their first names? We learn a little more about what went into putting Hogwarts together, and what could go into tearing it apart at the seams. I have a special fondness for Founders-backstory, and I wish that we got even more of it than we do, but I like the introduction to it here.

5) Many other details. Small things, one-off topics, far too numerous for me to recount here. If I’d been thinking properly, I’d have kept a list while I was reading. But… the Whomping Willow. The opal necklace in Borgin & Burke’s. Expelliarmus. Polyjuice Potion. Basilisk venom. Godric’s sword. All of these things that come up, that become so critical (but many of which don’t come back until Books 6 or 7), first appear in CoS.

6) The most ultimately important of all of those seeds? The idea of Harry as a Horcrux, even though we won’t read that word for another four books. This early on, we learn (through the Parselmouth revelation) that Voldemort left something of him self behind, in Harry, unintentionally. We don’t know what this means yet. I daresay most of us shrugged it off at first, thinking, “Oh, yeah, sure, that must happen with powerful curses.” We didn’t know it mean Harry actually had a piece of Voldemort’s soul.

And yet… I still just can’t get on board with this book.

I wish I could put my finger on why. I think it may be that it suffers from some of the same problems as Sorcerer’s Stone — very linear plot, unsophisticated style, fairy-tale feel, lack of psychological depth — but it doesn’t have that shiny new series smell as the first book. There’s not the same adrenaline rush of exploring a new world to cover up for those flaws. And Rowling does re-use some of the same plot elements, which she’s better about nuancing in the later books.

Still, good is good, and even the worst book in the series is still a four-star book by my reckoning. And for what it’s worth, after finishing this re-read, I was so eager to get on to the next one that I broke my rule about alternating reading projects and went straight on to Prisoner of Azkaban.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J K Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneSorcerer's Stone
Author: J K Rowling
Year of Publication: 1997
Length: 384 pages
Genre: magical realism / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Re-read
Rating: 4 stars

That’s right; the Great Re-Read of 2011 has begun. Well, one of them, anyway. (Along with A Song of Ice and Fire, Pratchett’s witches and Agent Pendergast slotted for the summer, and now that Mark Reads is on to His Dark Materials, I suppose I need to crack open The Golden Compass again as well). So, here it goes — between now and the release of the last movie, I intend to get through the whole series again, to be perfectly primed for the finale.

Re-reading Sorcerer’s Stone is a very mixed experience — so much nostalgia, mixed with so much… awareness, I guess is the right word. Because now, with the retrospective viewpoint, with having read all seven books, it’s hard not to see the vast difference in writing style and in tone between 1 and 7. Even just between 1 and 5, 1 and 3, J K got so much more sophisticated as a writer. Sorcerer’s Stone is, by comparison, a fairy tale. It really does contain so many of those elements — the abused child (but without any of the psychological veracity that would make that situation scary rather than Cinderella-ish), the entry to a new world, the element of sheer dumb luck. And the story itself is so plain-spoken, so straightforward. There aren’t any subplots in this book. So many of the characters are caricatures. Even Hermione is so flat, such a stereotype, without the emotional depth (and cutting wit) she develops later on. It’s just not as involved a story, not so detailed, not so emotionally compelling as the later books. It’s not as complicated, I think is the main thing — this story is so simple. Delightful, but simple. And I do love complications.

So, with all seven in mind, Sorcerer’s Stone is far from my favourite book. It probably falls between 5th and 6th in ranking, depending on how I’m feeling about Half-Blood Prince on any given day. I can’t help feeling that it really is more of a children’s book than the rest of the series.

And yet…

This is the book that started it all. I remember the giddiness of my first time reading it — all that delight, all that fascination, taking so much joy in J K’s twists and turns, her mythological and historical references. There’s such a sense of joy and nostalgia. (Anyone who doesn’t follow Mark Reads, by the way, totally should — because experiencing both his first read and now walking through his re-read with him hits all those nostalgia buttons so hard. I almost did a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, but with Mark’s out there, it’d be redundant). And it’s not that it brings up childhood for me — I was sixteen when I first read the series (only released to Goblet of Fire) at that point. I picked Sorcerer’s Stone up on a whim at CVS while running errands for my parents, read it when I was supposed to be studying for my physics final, and… it was love at first page-turn. So it’s something else — my love of engrossing story, reawakened each time I open these books.

And the value of hindsight works in J K’s favour here, too, because there’s just so much foreshadowing and seeding going on. Sirius Black, Snape and James and Lily’s entanglements, Hermione’s increasing comfort with rule-bending and -breaking. Even the tensions over Muggles and Muggleborns, which get explicated in the next book, are foreshadowed here. What I find really interesting, actually, is the viewpoint of the “good” wizards about Muggles. Even the ones who are pro-Muggle do treat them as primitives, as quaint, interesting little things. Wizarding privilege: not a market cornered by Slytherin, ‘s’all I’m sayin’. Sorcerer’s Stone also contains the very first instance of CAPSLOCK!Harry — it’s brief, but it’s there, as he’s convincing Ron and Hermione they have to go after the Stone. And that made me smile.

Ultimately… I will never not love re-visiting this series. The beginning is, in my opinion, weak compared to what comes after… but it’s still the beginning, and it will always have that special glow.

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